The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These landscapes – the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine – are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. Each year we navigate a different trajectory as we seek to map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.
In times past an anarchist community of pirates called Madagascar home. It was an island beyond the law and off the map, a place of rogues, booty and bounties. These were outlaws moored on a marooned ecosystem. Set adrift 88 million years ago, the island is a castaway in the Indian Ocean, inhabited by a band of ecological stowaways. In this splendid isolation it has evolved into an unparalleled wonderland of the weird and unique, diverse and unbelievable.
A political coup in 2009 left the country adrift once more – isolated from the international community, deprived of foreign aid and conservation funding. One of the planet’s most precious ecological treasures is home to one of its poorest nations and it raises difficult and complex questions about the relationship between necessity and luxury. Amidst political uncertainty, the island’s fragile and unique ecology is being smuggled out illegally, boat by boat, gem by gem. Rare tortoises leave in rucksacks, forests are carved into the ebony fingerboards on Gibson Guitars or $1million rosewood beds sold in China.
In the run up to the country’s first election since the coup Unknown Fields heads to Madagascar to catalogue the push and pull of economy and ecology and to trace the shadows of the world’s desires across the landscapes of this treasured island. Along our way we seek to uncover some of the complex value negotiations that play out across this unique island and craft new stories from statistics, data, predictions, projections, measurements and offsets.
The Division will venture through wild west sapphire towns and mining landscapes and trek through rainforests ringing with the song of the Indri in search of rare and undiscovered treasures, a menagerie of preciousness and scarcity, of rubies, minerals and exotic spices, of ring tailed Lemurs, ‘octopus’ trees, and carnivorous plants; of pigmy chameleons, tomato frogs and moon moths. We will travel by plane and pirogue, train and taxi-brousse, from rough roads to rough seas, to fishing villages and up rivers silted with eroded soils. Unknown Fields will reimagine a territory that is equally wondrous and scarred as we follow the trail of global resource extraction into the heart of the most unique ecosystem on the planet.
Joining us on tour will be international collaborators from the worlds of technology, science and fiction, and together we will form a travelling circus of research visits, field reportage, rolling discussions and impromptu tutorials that will be chronicled in a publication and film developed en route.
The Unknown Fields summer expedition is open to all architects, designers, artists, writers and interested parties, students or professionals. A portfolio or CV is not required, only the online application form and payment.
The deadline for applications is 14 June 2013. Application forms and additional information are available online at: www.aaschool.ac.uk/unknownfields and applications can be submitted to: email@example.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for questions. All participants travelling from abroad are responsible for securing any visa required. After payment of fees, the AA can provide a letter confirming participation in the workshop.
All inclusive Expedition fee: £1500, which includes flights from London, all internal transport, accommodation, entrance fees, meetings, consultants, workshops and all other group costs (excludes meals). Please note: If you are based closer to Madagascar you can meet Unknown Fields on location in Antananarivo and we can arrange a reduced fee that excludes return flights from London.
+ £60 Architectural Association Membership. If you are already a member of the AA, this is not required.
The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These landscapes – the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine – are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. They are the dislocated hinterlands that lie behind the scenes of modern cities. Each year we navigate a different trajectory as we seek to map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.
Here we are both visionaries and reporters, part documentarians and part science fiction soothsayers as the otherworldly sites we encounter afford us a distanced viewpoint from which to survey the consequences of emerging environmental and technological scenarios.
Join the division for our next expedition.
The Unknown Field Division is coordinated by Liam Young and Kate Davies.
Unknown Fields Division leaders Liam Young and Kate Davies are interviewed for Thinking in Practice Issue 15. In the article they cover Mega-cities, apocalyptic narratives, Peripheral territories, fictions as infrastructure, the shadows of urban development and the urgency to define new modes of practice in architecture.
Embedded journalist and designer Jessica Charlesworth joined the division for the final leg of our Alien Encounters road trip from Roswell, New Mexico to the Burning Man Festival. Jessica has documented her time with the division in this long post on CORE 77. You can also follow the division prepare their expedition as we build our old school bus as a solar powered nomadic studio , then we load it up with our Burning Man survival gear, and raid Walmart for water and supplies. You can also see all of Jessica’s photographs from the expedition in the core 77 Unknown Fields gallery.
Photography by Jonathan Gales and Jessica Charlesworth
In Blueprint magazines roundup of the top graduates of 2012 4 graduates from Unknown Fields Strange Times: Far North Alaska studio have been recognized. Congratulations to Alex Laing for his project Ghost in the Spectrum, Dessislava Lyutakova for Harmonic Frequencies, Reo Suzuki for Theater for History Yet Unseen and Samantha Lee for Sedna, Landscape Supercomputer. The awards follow on from the success of last years Never Never Lands: Outback Australia studio, where 4 graduates were also included in the same list.
For the Summer 2012 Alien Encounters expedition publication Unknown Fields are collaborating with comic illustrator Kristian Donaldson to develop a graphic novel set in the landscapes visited across the road trip. The novel will follow a fictionalized Unknown Fields division as they explore the desert wastelands attempting to decipher the meaning of the black technologies they uncover on their way. Krisitan is a Texas based illustrator. His previous works include Brain Woods’ ‘The Massive‘ and ‘Supermarket’ .
The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies. The skies over this red earth are scarred with the contrails of experimental weapons flights and charged with the militarised electromagnetic waves that reach out to US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Forgotten, somewhere in this landscape, is an abandoned missile tracking station. From here Oliviu, in our Experimental Flight Lab, is launching a choreographed flock of autonomous gliders, to drift through the air in silent protest. Floating on engineered thermal currents their wingspan antennas broadcast white noise through the electromagnetic landscapes over Australia’s Pine Gap military base, momentarily jamming their telecommunications signals.
GRAVITYONE: A CHOREOGRAPHED TRAJECTORY
THERMAL GENERATORS- A prosthetic implant in to the cliff, a technological augmentation, a point where the entire light weight architectural system prop on the ground through the use of an air column.
GLIDERS APPROACHING MILITARY BASE
RECOUPING AERIAL TERRITORY
TACTICAL MILITARY OPERATIONS
GLIDER, DRIFTING OFF TRAJECTORY, ANOTHER ARTIFACT OF THE DESERT
Aboriginal dreamtime narratives speak of a time when the ground was soft and creation beings shaped mountains and rivers. Now the financial narratives of gold prices reshape the earth through massive excavations and technological incisions. The Atlas of Gold Fictions catalogues the strange infrastructures of the gold economy, from its source in the mines of Australia to the web of precious artefacts scattered across the globe. Aram, of our Future Archaeologies Department, has reimagined the infrastructure of gold’s solely virtual value through the speculative artefacts of a new network of gold objects inscribed with the oral histories of the land from which it came. A suicide note is inscribed on a single gold bullet, the sound of a grandmother’s laughter is encoded into an heirloom necklace and the dying languages of Australia’s indigenous culture are recorded onto the gold bars dug out of the very ground of their homeland. Our relationship to our finite resources is re-examined with this new dispersed geology of artefacts encoded with the cultural rather than economic values of the contemporary world.
GOLD BAR- Like the voyager gold record, the gold bar is redesigned as spools of lost and endangered languages from the indigenous sites where the resource is extracted.
GOLD VAULT- The gold vault becomes a new archive of cultural information and lost languages.
HEADPHONE JACK- This gold plated headphone jack has embedded within it an aboriginal songline from the place its gold was abstracted. Once the landscape is disturbed by mining machines, its songlines become dislocated from their lad, encoded into and spread by the gold. The aboriginal stories and song survive in the ore extracted. Just like the secret tracks of a beatle record, Hidden within the tunes of the latest pop song are the Endangered oral histories from the mine site.
EYELID IMPLANT- Mary Andreson works at a diner in Rhode Island. She likes to read ‘Hello’ and ‘Vogue’ as she dreams of having a better life. “If I am Beautiful” she thinks to herself, “I can get out of here”. So night by night she sweeps the floors and cleans the grime from the ovens, collecting the pennies that she is saving to make herself beautiful. As her hands become rough, she works towards implants that will remove the tired lines from her eyes; on which her ideal DNA is recorded, “When I am gone” she thinks, “they’ll read who I really am inside”.
HEIRLOOM PENDANT- Natapa lives in Bangkok with her mother. She is sixteen now and she wants to leave home but she is trapped. For months she has been seeing a boy, but she wouldn’t dare tell. Leaving is the only way to see him. Enduring their love in respective isolation, the young couple exchange pendants onto which their voices are inscribed reminded each other that it’s only a matter of time before they can be together. The sounds of their laughter and little sayings caress the grooves of the pendant.
LUMBAR IMPLANT- Tyler Mason, 24 from Ohio, came back from his first tour of duty in Iraq with shrapnel in his sides and a broken spine. The whole time I was out there he thought of Jane, whom he had left behind. He would sing the tune they first kissed to in his head as he was dragged to safety by a medic, wondering if he would ever see her again. When they fixed his back, inscribed in the contours of his implant he engraved that first song- “You and Me”. They patched him up, he kissed Jane and went on his way to Afghanistan.
GOLD BULLET- This was the suicide bullet used by Hunter S Thompson in 2005. Inscribed along its contours is a note to his wife Anita titled, ‘Football season is over’.
The vast territories of the Australian outback are highly contested landscapes. The technologies with which this ground is surveyed and recorded also become the political means through which groups claim ownership over it. In the skies above, mining survey planes track back and forth laser scanning the earth searching for the topographic anomalies that indicate pockets of undiscovered minerals and on the ground, the ochre stokes of aboriginal landscape painters map the songlines of their sacred dreamtime stories. In our Department of Intangible technologies Samantha Lee is corrupting this mining survey data by engineering a seasonal network of mysterious dreamtime anomalies. Anchored around aboriginal sacred sites these mythic objects slowly stalk the contested territory, distorting mining cartographies to generate a new form of landscape representation. This architecture of mirages exists at the threshold between the sky and the subterranean, between the physical and the virtual, to generate a ghostly constellation of sacred sites hidden within the dataset.
GHOST IN THE DATA- By scanning, the hidden ghost of the landscape is revealed, becoming a new layer of meaning in the virtual dataset. The sacred sites are given a presence which extends into the invisible and the subterranean realm, and isn’t just reduced to a thin surface. A reality made explicit by Native Title, this severs the surface of land from the government-owned underground.
The world is now concealed and manipulated in ways that make answering the question of where am I an impossibility. Glitches in the big and fragile infrastructures of Global Positioning systems mean we are sometimes both here and there, as a pulsing blue dot locates us to within 500metres. What are the implications of a navigational system based solely on the virtual? Will Gowland, in our Department of Landscape Glitches has jammed the GPS networks and revealed an alternative virtual topography, a territorial architecture of spoofed cartography. It is an emerging landscape that operates and exits in two parallel worlds, the physical and the virtual. Imaginary protest icebergs drift through the autonomously navigated oil shipping lanes. We get lost in a wilderness of illegal signal jamming formations and we glimpse the faint flicker of covert militarised GPS territories, super stable under a secret sky of black satellites. Some are landscapes of misdirection, others are navigational markers guiding one safely through unstable terrain. We now put our faith in a digital territory that is just as unknown and fallible as the physical.
Imaginary gps ghost protest icebergs drift through the autonomously navigated oil shipping lanes.
Oil reserves are hidden below digital GPS mountains
An illegal oil field is hidden in a GPS spoof, a digital landscapes of misdirection.